Listening to History – Thoughts for Black History Month


The Value of Stories

As we at Advance Memphis walk in relationships with our neighbors, one thing that we continually recognize is the importance of stories. Each person on Advance’s staff, each volunteer, and each neighbor has a particular story, which includes the gifts God has created us for, our pains and joys, our desires, our relationships, and so much more.  Because we value relationships so deeply at Advance— in fact, we think that relationships are at the very center of God’s design for our lives— we are always looking to participate in each other’s stories. In our Work Life curriculum, we spend two full lessons talking about the importance of acknowledging and dealing with things in our past (our story) in order to move forward into God’s design for our lives.

On Day 6 of Work Life, the class gathers together for a time of sharing and listening. It takes a lot of bravery and trust to open up to each other and put it all on the table, the good and the bad. Consequently, this time of sharing life stories is consistently the most difficult and impactful part of each Work Life class. The result is an opportunity to look into each other’s lives and see deeper than the sorrows, joys, pain, and growth – it is an opportunity to see God at work, to learn from each other, and to begin participating in each other’s stories.

Acknowledging Our Collective Story

In the month of February, we want to acknowledge the fact that, though individual stories are important, there are larger Stories that affect each of us deeply. To be sure, we are all part of a grand story of cosmic redemption that God is working out on this earth, healing the effects of sin and brokenness all around us. More particularly, the month of February is a time to focus and highlight some parts of our shared story as Americans that is too often glossed over in history books, and dangerously ignored in our conversations about our collective story. Black History Month calls us to acknowledge and inculcate stories of amazing accomplishment against all odds; stories of deep, soul-wrenching pain; stories of success stomped out by sinister systems; stories of beauty and flourishing; all stories that have black people at their center. We must be open to listen to both the heroism and the hurt as we hear the history.

“The problem occurs when we cover [our stories] up, try to ignore the pain, and live as though these things did not happen.”  Each of our Work Life students hears this in Lesson 3, as we begin to look at our past. The Church needs to hear this, too. We hope that the Church, both black and white, will take time this month to listen to our black brothers’ and sisters’ stories from the distant and the recent past in order to be more knowledgeable and maybe even more empathetic participants in our own—and each other’s—stories.

Looking Back: A Story to Listen To

Let us offer one example, from John Hope Bryant, founder of Operation Hope.  John Hope Bryant explains in his book How the Poor Can Save Capitalism, how President Abraham Lincoln began the Freedman’s Savings Bank shortly after the end of the Civil War, in order to help empower former slaves who desired to enter into the economy. Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated shortly thereafter and the new president, Andrew Johnson, had vastly different stances on black empowerment. Bryant notes, “At its height, the Freedman’s Savings Bank had seventy thousand depositors, all of whom were formerly enslaved. Unfortunately, due in large part to the destructive efforts of Johnson and the mismanagement and gaming of the bank that followed, the bank ultimately did fail, and every depositor lost his or her money. All of it. This may be part of the reason that black Americans and other disadvantaged groups do not trust banks and the government today.”[1]

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in the early 1900’s of the crash of the Freedmen’s Bank, “All the hard-earned dollars of the freedmen disappeared; but that was the least of the loss—all the faith in saving went too, and much of the faith in men; and that was a loss that a Nation which today sneers at Negro shiftlessness has never yet made good.  Not even ten additional years of slavery could have done so much to throttle the thrift of the freedmen as the mismanagement and bankruptcy of the [Freedmen’s Bank].”[2]  Du Bois demonstrates in an almost-prophetic manner the incredible effect that this Historical Event—an intimate piece of our Nation’s Story—had on the trust of former slaves in financial institutions, and on the perceptions of black people in the eyes of the Nation.

Moving Forward: Participate in Others’ Stories

Without listening to our Story—even the parts we wish we could ignore—we cannot move forward. Advance Memphis desires to continue to build relationships every day that help us to be a part of each other’s stories as we walk together in God’s design for our lives. During Black History Month, we wanted to take a moment to recall one episode in our Nation’s Story that affects people to this day, and to encourage the Church to learn more about our history—our stories—so that we can all take steps to move toward healing.

This healing will be impossible without listening and participation. At Advance, we seek to take time to listen to our neighbors, and when we do this, we find that we truly learn. It’s our human tendency to speak our minds. But how can we learn without taking time to genuinely listen? In this vein, we encourage both white people and black people in the Church to enter into long-term relationships with each other—come volunteer at Advance, or visit a local church where you are in the minority, or invite somebody into your home that has a very different story than you do. May God help us to begin actively participating in each other’s stories; when we do this, we will reflect his Kingdom in more deep and beautiful ways.

[1] John Hope Bryant, How the Poor can Save Capitalism (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2014), 62.

[2] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994), 22-23.